A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.
There are many stories from fairy tales and folklore of humans falling in love with one of the Fair Folk. Some result in the human being led away, never to be seen again, whilst others tell of the fairy attempting to live with their human love. As is their way, there is always a catch or a condition upon them remaining in the human world, and this tale is no exception.
Recorded by folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker this tale first appeared in print in his 1828 publication, Irish Fairy Legends and was later retold by Sigerson Clifford in Legends of Kerry (1978).
The story of the Lady of Gollerus is that of a simple mortal man who fell in love with a lovely fairy from the sea and wanted to keep her for his own. Known as a Merrow, she was one of the merfolk that reside in the waters around the wild Atlantic coasts of Ireland. These creatures are seldomly vindictive towards humans, and their curiousity often leads to them interacting with people. They may leave their watery realm but must bring with them a magical red cap known as a cohullen druith. Only by wearing this, may they return to the sea.
Originating from the Dingle Peninsula in the south-west of Ireland, this story is set around Smerwick; a small harbour, which in Irish is known as Cuan Ard na Caithne. Gollerus, the place which our hero’s home was located, is a misspelling of Gallarus, which in Irish is Ghallarais. This region has been a veritable treasure-trove of folklore and story tradition, and to this day boasts a large number of fairy forts and ancient sites of interest. As well as Merrows, of course.
It was on the shore at Smerwick Harbour that our hero, Dick Fitzgerald, was sat, smoking his pipe just at daybreak, as he did most days. The place was peaceful, and the sea brought to a calm to him whilst of course, no storms were raging.
Behind him, the sun was rising gradually across the lofty Brandon mountain, lighting up the dark sea with green, and catching the plumes of sea foam on the emerald waves crashing down onto the sand.
As the sunlight heated up the hills and fields from a chilly night, the mists rolled out from the valleys, curling like the smoke from the corner of Dick’s mouth.
“’Tis just the pattern of a healthy morning,” remarked Dick, as he took the pipe from between his lips and exhaled, looking out at the great far ocean which lay as still and tranquil before him, gulls crying as they wheeled above. He had everything that he wanted in life, but there was something missing. Dick was a fine man, but he was lonely, and was yet to take a wife.
“’Tis mighty lonesome to be talking to one’s self by way of company and not to have another soul to answer one. If I had the luck to meet the right woman it wouldn’t be this way with me. And what in the wide world is a man without a wife? He’s no more than a bottle without a drop of drink in it, or dancing without music, or the left leg of a scissors, or a fishing-line without a hook, or anything else that isn’t complete or fully-fashioned.”
With a mournful sigh, he took to sucking on his pipe again, his eyes taking in the view of the bay as he mulled over his sad situation.
As his eyes rested upon a large rock on the strand below him, a movement caught his attention. Was it a seal? No. There upon the seaweed covered slab, sat a beautiful young woman combing her long sea-green hair, her feet dipping into the water, singing softly to herself as she combed.
Her hair was dark green and shiny, like the seaweed, and her skin was pale. Dick guessed at once that she must be a Merrow, although he had never seen one before, for he spied the little enchanted red cap, which the sea people use for diving into the ocean, lying on the strand beside her.
He had heard that if he could possess the cap, then the Merrow would lose the power of going back into the sea, and he resolved that he might catch her. Dick put his pipe out, then tiptoed as quietly as a cat after a mouse down towards her. Distracted with her singing, the Merrow didn't see him until it was too late. Dick swooped down and grabbed the little cap before she had time to escape.
Noticing the man, the Merrow began a mournful cry with the tender voice of a newborn infant when she saw that her magic cap was gone, salt tears trickling down her cheeks.
“Don’t cry, my darling one,” said Dick, but this only made her cry all the more.
Dick sat himself down gently by her side and took her hand in his, to comfort her. He found that it was very like a human hand, only there was a small web between the fingers which was as thin and white as the skin between egg and shell.
“What’s your name, my pet?” Dick asked, but she gave him no answer.
He was certain now that she could not speak or understand him, and he squeezed her hand in his as the only way he had of talking to her. It is the universal language, and there’s not a woman in the world, be she fish, flesh or even skin and bone, that does not understand it.
The Merrow did not seem much displeased at this mode of conversation, and after a while, she stopped crying and looked up at Dick’s face.
“Man, will you eat me?” she asked with a shaky voice, the two lovely eyes full of fear.
“By all the red petticoats and check aprons between Dingle and Tralee, I’d soon as eat myself!” Dick cried. “Now who put that queer notion into your pretty head with all the lovely green hair growing out of it?”
“Man,” said the Merrow, “what will you do with me if you won’t eat me?”
Dick fell quiet for a moment. His thoughts of course, had been running on finding himself a wife. He saw at the first look that the Merrow was handsome; but since she spoke like any real woman he was fairly in love with her. It was the neat way she called him man that settled the matter.
“Miss Merrow, here’s my word fresh and fasting for you this blessed morning. I’m going to make you Mistress Fitzgerald before all the world. That’s what I’m going to do.” Dick told her.
Now Merrows have their own men, but they are not the most handsome of creatures. Fishermen and sailors will tell you that it is not unknown for these fair maids of the sea to take a human lover instead.
“Never say the word twice,” the Merrow said, her expression warming as she looked at Dick, “for I’m ready and willing to be your wife, Mister Fitzgerald. Only stop a while, if you please, ‘til I do up my hair, for I’m sure I’m a sight.”
It was some time before she had settled the hair entirely to her liking, for she knew she’d have to face inspection from critical eyes. Dick watched as the lovely creature brushed her comb through it, piling her curls on top of her head, strands falling over her pale shoulders. Then she put the comb in her pocket, bent down her head and whispered some word to the water that was close to the foot of the rock.
Dick observed with wonder, the murmur of the words upon the top of the sea, rippling out towards the wide ocean, like a breath of wind, and he said in the greatest wonder, “Is it speaking you are, my darling, to the salt sea water?”
“I’m just sending word home to my father not to be waiting breakfast for me, just to keep him from getting uneasy,” she told him.
“And who is your father?” Dick asked, surprised to learn that she had family.
“He’s the King of the Waves to be sure,” the Merrow answered.
Dick’s eyes opened wide at the news. “By Herkins, I’m nothing else but a made man with you and you with a king for your father. He must have all the Spanish money that’s banked at the bottom of the sea.”
“Money,” repeated the Merrow innocently, “what is money?”
“If I had any I could explain it better to you,” Dick said with a laugh, “However, we’ll find time to debate it later on. Off with us now to Ballinrunnig until I talk with Father Fitzgibbon into making us husband and wife.”
And so it was that Father Fitzgibbon married Dick Fitzgerald to the Merrow and, like any loving couple, they returned home to Gallerus, well pleased with each other. Everything prospered with Dick, and that hole in his life that was the lack of a wife had been filled with the loveliest woman that he had ever seen. The Merrow made the best of wives, and they lived together in the greatest contentment.
It was a wonder, considering where she had been brought up, how she took so easily to human life, busying herself about the house, and how good a mother she made. For the Merrow gave Dick three children in three years, two boys and a girl, which they both loved dearly.
In short, Dick was a happy man living the sunny side of the world, and so he might have been to the end of his days if he only had the sense to take care of what he had got without any trouble.
One day when Dick was obliged to travel to Tralee, he left his Merrow wife minding the children at home after him. He had left his fishing tackle in a mess, but thought that she would not bother with it as she had plenty to do as it was.
He was no sooner gone then Mrs Fitzgerald set about cleaning the house, and chancing to pull down a fishing-net, she discovered a small hole in the wall. Something there caught her eye, and looking closer what should she find there but her own magic cap.
She took it out and looked at it, and at once all of her memories of the sea came flooding back, like a raging tide. She thought of her father the king, and her mother the queen, and all of her brothers and sisters, and missed them terribly, feeling a longing to go back to them.
Her heart pulled between land and ocean, and with the cap in her hands, she sat down on a little stool and thought over the happy days she had spent under the sea. Then she looked at her children, and thought on the love and affection of poor Dick, and how it would break their hearts to lose her.
“But,” said she to herself, “he won’t have lost me entirely for I’ll come back to him again after a day or so, and who can blame me for going to see my father and my mother after being so long away from them? They would love to hear about my life on the land, and of my children.”
She got up and went towards the door but paused, returning again to look once more at the child that was sleeping peacefully in the cradle. She kissed it gently, and a tear trembled in her eye and then fell on its rosy cheek. She wiped it away, telling the eldest girl to take care of her brothers, and to be a good child until she came back.
She then went down the lanes to the strand. The sea was lying calm and smooth, just heaving and glittering in the sun, and she thought she heard over the cry of the gulls, a faint sweet singing, inviting her to come down.
As soon as she heard this, her old ideas and feelings washed over her mind. Dick and the children were at the instant forgotten, and putting the magic cap on her head she plunged into the sea.
The children were alone when Dick came home in the evening, asking Kathleen, his little girl, what had become of her mother, found that she could not tell him. He then inquired of the neighbours, and he learned that she was seen going towards the strand with a strange-looking thing like a little red hat in her hand. Dread then filled him, and he ran back to his house to search for the magic cap. She had tidied his fishing tackle, that was clear to see. Pushing it all aside, he reached into the little hole that had been a hiding place, and discovered that it was gone, and he needed no peeler to tell him who took it.
Year after year Dick Fitzgerald waited expectantly for his wife to return but he never saw her again. He would walk the strand each day, hoping to see his lovely bride come back for him, but she never did. He never remarried and nothing could persuade him but that her father, the king, kept her under water by main force, for he thought that she surely would not give up her husband and her children forever without a hard struggle.
When Dick passed away, the children who were now in their twenties, went to America, and if they prospered nobody ever heard about it, and if they struck misfortune no one learned about that either; they just vanished into the big wide world and, considering the way people talk, it was as well that they did. Wherever they might be, there is for sure more than a little magic in them.
© 2020 Pollyanna Jones